||May 26, 2010
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Cecil Clemenzi grew up in a Cleveland suburb where he was taunted and bullied from early childhood through adolescence. By the time he graduated from NYU and landed his first job as a runner for the New York Commodity Exchange, he was on his way to becoming an emotionally fragile yet surprisingly determined floor trader. One morning, following a freeze in Florida that sends the price of Orange Juice futures sharply higher, he loses everything in just one trade. Cecil blames another more successful floor trader for his loss and is determined to inflict as much retribution as possible on him. First, through one of his ‘connected’ relatives, Cecil tries to have the trader’s daughter killed. Then he goes after some of his closest family friends. Finally, consumed with paranoia once he realizes his nemesis is now ruthlessly seeking his own revenge, he embarks on a desperate yet somewhat comical road trip that takes him to Laramie, Wyoming, where he unsuccessfully tries to start a new life. Alone, confused, and very afraid, he decides to go back home and meet his fate.
Mike sat dreamily gazing out over the choppy surface of the water that stretched for miles into the horizon. The moon could not be seen, yet the light from it illuminated the eerie cloud cover. Mike began to think about the fish in the water below, the depth of the water, and even what it might look like hundreds of feet below on the floor of the ocean. After about an hour had passed, Toby muttered, “Fuck it!” to himself and went below to get some sleep. Mike was so lost in thought he barely heard him leave.
Mike closed his eyes and held the rod loosely in his hands. He filled his mind with the image of a turn-of-the-century whaler’s boat, about twenty-five feet in length, filled with a half dozen rough-looking oarsmen working at a frenetic pace to keep the small boat steady enough, yet still moving swiftly enough, for the lone harpooner to angrily hurl his crude, yet lethal, spear into the shiny black skin of the creature who had just surfaced for a breath of fresh air. Mike saw a twisted look of anger on the killer’s face and a look of pleasure on the faces of the oarsmen, all except one, and Mike recognized the compassion on the face of this one sea-drenched whaler. He saw the pain that the man was feeling as the others around him encouraged each other on and Mike felt like he too had experienced that same pain before.
At this precise moment, the rod was nearly pulled out of Mike’s hands and he was seeing only the open sea in front of him. As he set the drag a little looser he grimaced in a way very much like one of the less timid whalers of his mind’s eye. He pulled the rod up in one swift motion to set the hook. Once done, the fight began. Mike’s mind was intensely focused on first his hands, then the reel, then the line, then the rod, and finally the sea and his prey below.
He knew it was a big fish. This much had been established in the first few seconds, critical moments, after he had set the hook. Now it was simply a matter of working it in and not being too slow or too fast about it. The fish dived deep and the reel hummed relentlessly as the line raced away. Mike was unaware of Toby’s presence behind him as he continued to focus only on the fish. He slowly let the rod ease down towards the horizon and quickly brought it back up again and it was then that he knew the fish was gone. He began to reel in the several hundred feet of line very slowly as Toby mumbled, “Tough fucking break!” before returning to his bunk below, half carrying Ben with him down the steps into the cabin. As Mike reeled in the line, it felt as though he was reeling in nothing, yet he saw the heavy, clear pale-green line move onto the reel in his lap and his hands continued to tremble even after the final wet strand of line slipped through the top guide of his rod and noiselessly flapped around the reel before coming to a rest in his lap.
He sat transfixed for a long while as though he were deep in thought, when actually he was only numb. He thought of the big fish below swimming furiously away from the boat with the hook set firmly in its jaw. After a few long, quiet minutes had passed, Mike placed the rod down on to the floor of the boat and stood up to stretch his muscles. It seemed like the wind had picked up and he realized the storm was getting closer.
It was sometime later that night, long after Mike had wrapped himself up in a damp down blanket and fallen asleep under a tarp in the stern of the boat, that the sudden impact of something hitting the side of the boat awoke all but one of the sleeping fishermen.
Mike was the first to see the catamaran, rather, a part of a catamaran that had struck them. It was only a few feet away from the boat. Toby and Osborn both joined him from below and all three of them stared in disbelief at the single blue and white pontoon about fifteen feet in length as it glistened in the light from the flashlight Toby held on it. It still had the net-like seating attached to its side and Osborn was the first to notice a body clinging tightly to its tattered rigging.
“What the fuck?” Osborn exclaimed.
Then Mike saw it too and yelled, “Someone hanging on there!”
Toby responded immediately as he threw open a storage compartment in the rear and pulled out a long rope and started shouting orders. “Throw this over the front. Osborn, get that hook, there, get it out.” He was referring to a long aluminum pole in a rack along the inner side of the cruiser. “Hold it there,” he shouted. “Mike, get the rope out there.” The entire lower deck of the cruiser was a scene of frantic confusion, yet somehow they managed to get one end of the rope attached to part of the rigging on the catamaran.
Toby started the engine of the cruiser and slowly started to move it closer to the long bluish missile that lay alongside the Bertram in the rough water. He was able to move it just a few feet closer and Osborn was able to get one end of the pole wedged into a gap between the rigging and the cat. Mike watched as it edged closer to them and when it was only a few feet away he began to precariously reach out for something to hold on to. After several futile attempts to grab a rope hanging off the side of the boat he finally got it. He jumped into the water. He held tightly to the rope with one hand as he swam towards the lifeless body. It all happened so fast and when they finally got the girl’s body on board, none of them said a thing at first. There she lay, soaking wet, semi-conscious, somewhat delirious, and shivering convulsively. Mike wrapped her up in the same down blanket he had been sleeping in moments before.
Meeting One's Fate: The Shadow that Finally Defuses
Frank Drury's premier novel about an apparent boating accident off Ocean City, Maryland during 1985's Hurricane David suggests the insidious effects of greed on a society that pursues the almighty dollar to devastating consequences. Drury implies that although there are many conscientious people whose goals are wholly different than their ruthlessly ambitious counterparts, nevertheless those of marginal conscience imperil the world in such small ways as causing an innocent person's death in a boating accident to selling armaments worldwide and thereby contributing to global conflict. The rippling effect of greed is catastrophic. However, as dangerous to individual and world peace as one's selfish or vengeful actions truly are, Drury suggests that it is never too late for one to alter their invidious effects. In fact, it is never too late to atone for the moral lapses of a lifetime.
A group of men on a fishing outing discover a survivor of a boating disaster clinging to a piece of wreckage. Mike Chandler, a psychologist, rescues seventeen-year-old Virginia Kepler from certain death after her catamaran has been destroyed. At the same time, the girl's father, Kevin, in Fenwick Island, Delaware, is following the Coast Guard search reports, attempting to discover what has happened to his daughter and her fiancé. As it turns out, the calamity may have not been an accident; just as important, the survivor, Virginia, is traumatized, not only by the experience, but by the circumstances which follow and reveal to her a side of her father of which she had previously been unaware. Having lived a privileged life on a horse ranch in Virginia with the patrician comforts of a maid, cook, governess, ranch foreman, and the like, she has known security as well as love despite the fact that her mother died in a plane crash ten years ago. Thus, when her father begins to act strangely and her fiancé has vanished from her life, she experiences suspicions toward her father as well as a sense of vulnerability. The man who rescued her from the accident is called in to help her overcome her depression and ease her through the psychological trauma.
Chandler is unable to dismiss his infatuation for the girl although he has a girlfriend. Juxtaposed with the threat of the hurricane are two experiences in helicopters flying in the turbulent atmosphere as well as the disturbing memory on Virginia's father's part of his daughter's particularly bloody injury as a child and his own lingering fears for her safety. Since Virginia's mother died, she and her father have been particularly close. Thus it is significant that Kepler does everything he can to ameliorate his daughter's suffering, and it is believable that Virginia worries about her father's involvement in the aftermath of the incident.
Because Virginia's father carries a gun, it is apparent that there is something questionable about his lifestyle. Behind his charm and good looks a mysterious past slowly becomes evident. As it turns out, Kevin was involved in the world of high finance, a participant in the commodities market, particularly cotton shares, until he decided to employ the use of contacts made during his Viet Nam experience as a major. He then becomes an arms dealer, selling weapons to mostly mid-eastern countries. As a result, he becomes wealthy and is able to retire. However, it is the vengeance of a former Wall Street associate that threatens his complacent life in rural Virginia.
Kevin Kepler has had time to regret some of his actions on Wall Street. Yet he is a survivor as well as the protector of his daughter. He realizes he has initiated actions that will forever haunt him even if they do fall short of murder, for example, or torture. His involvement in futures trading and arms sales have compromised his character, and he is reminded of that when he thinks about his future and his legacy. Never a man of peace, he will have to change if he is to avoid the fate his present wife fears, as she rushes to pray, submerging herself deeper and deeper in her Christian faith in an effort to survive psychologically. Ironically, her goals are achieved even though Kevin is dubious about religion in general and there is no indication that Virginia harbors a religious inclination. In fact, Mike Chandler, the psychologist, admits he has suffered at the hands of religious zealots and has little faith in institutional religion.
Nevertheless, the lessons learned by Kepler as a result of realizing his daughter's vulnerability as a result of his professional life, lead him to an unexpected atonement for which there is no easy explanation except for the fact that he is a man that wishes to do the right thing. Moreover, Kevin has often regretted his own success in the futures business in that he had been so successful "simply because he had been better at the game." Kevin regarded his former profession as a "game" he played better than his hapless opponent, who as it turns out, has devoted his life to avenging his own professional failure at Kevin's expense. In fact, as can be expected, when the stakes are high and one plays ruthless, competitive games, he will gain enemies, as Kevin has. This is all part of the fallout of a career in high stakes futures. "The thing that bothered him most was that he had no control over it. With all of his wealth, power and contacts, he was still no more than an easy target for some twisted mind, and as he gazed again towards the southeast, he was aware of the deceptive tranquility looming in the eye of this storm." Thus, material achievement in a competitive society is short-lived and tenuous, as Kevin realizes even though he has sought refuge in the relative obscurity of rural Virginia. More significantly, in such a coldblooded milieu as Wall Street, one doesn't even know who his enemies are, as Kevin doesn't initially realize who is behind the threats now posed to his idyllic life. This vulnerability his enemy does realize, however, hiding behind his shield of anonymity for the time being.
Drury depicts the kind of people a society that is wrapped up in its own selfish goals epitomizes. He describes a patient of Chandler's who drove a man to suicide and then subsequently married the widow only to leave her for a younger female companion. Most of Drury's characters are driven by the need for self-gratification and thus it seems implausible that any of them will grow beyond their own preoccupations - from Mike Chandler who loves a girl young enough to be his daughter, to two friends of Kepler's who are ruffians and heavy drinkers, to a religious fanatic who is Kepler's second wife, and a thug family member who attempts to kill the girl, and the former futures trader who seeks out prostitutes and sleazy women with no sense of remorse. These are the embattled characters of "An Empty Sky," perhaps losers, perhaps ordinary men, but not stellar citizens and certainly not tranquil people unless their lives change somehow and set them on track.
Well, that is the question, isn't it? What ultimately defines the book is that these characters living their lives beneath "an empty sky" do seek to compensate for their jaded pasts of dubious accomplishments and "empty" choices by doing the right thing. In the end, they manage to reveal the purpose of what man is meant to achieve below the vast, blue sky of his beginnings...
One could argue the book is ultimately about redemption - that sincere attempt to reclaim ones higher self, which although submerged during the pursuit of worldly wealth, in the end asserts itself for the betterment of others and in the process inspires those who view that transformation to follow suit.
Drury's story is about vengeance tamed, about the big lessons learned in life, about finding truth where one least expects it, and finally about man's obligations to make the world a better place, not just to thrive on the rewards of accumulated wealth. Life is about family and those close to you as well as letting the difficult and conflicted past go, like so much water under the bridge.
Drury's style is economical and direct. The characters are interesting and remain with you after finishing the book. The plot moves quickly and surely to a definitive conclusion. I'm looking forward to his next novel.
Author of "Bread of Shame"
Midwest Book Review ***** stars
Vengeance only inspires more vengeance. "An Empty Sky" tells the story of neurotic trader Cecil Clemenzi as he digs his own hole of paranoia when he has a rival trader's daughter killed and soon finds himself on the opposite end of the revenge game. Fleeing and starting over are not things easily done, and makes "An Empty Sky" a fascinating and thought-provoking read.
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